Even as the 19th century was on its last legs, there appeared a unique book in England. Titled The Cricket Field of a Christian Life, the book, a curious mixture of cricket, morality and religion, was a powerful reassertion of the ideals of Muscular Christianity which first emanated from Sir Thomas Arnold in Rugby Public School in the 1840s.
Written by Reverend Thomas Waugh, the book is all about a Christian team batting against Satan’s devious and immoral bowlers who violate the spirit of the game. The batsmen feel that they have to contend not only with the quality of the bowling but also with the attitude of the ‘ungodly’ bowlers.
One wonders whether the fictitious Captain Russell of Lagaan had indeed survived his ordeal in central Africa to meet Reverend Waugh after his return to England. If he had made it, there is no doubting what could have been the genesis of Reverend Waugh’s Evangelical masterpiece—the cricket field of Champaner where the well-oiled white colonial machine met their match at the hands of a rag-tag-and-bobtail peasant outfit just four years before Reverend Waugh wrote the book.
If Russell had not returned to the Mother Country a sane man after his African stint, it is possible that Reverend Waugh would have talked to G.F. Vernon, the captain of the team from England which played against the Parsis in Bombay in1891. In the real match, which was organised by the then governor of Bombay, Lord Harris of Kent, it was Parsi bowler H. Modi’s action that was anything but divine for the English batsmen. Similarly, in the celluloid classic, it is Gola’s action which make them tear their hair in desperation.
Hang on though. What if Reverend Waugh lived a full century down the line in truly secular England where Anglican Church priests administer the Sunday mass to the few elder citizens who are assembled in the church imagining they are standing in front of crowds that throng the premier league soccer grounds?
Well, hold your breath. He would still have authored his Christian classic. For, he would have got valuable inputs from people such as South Africa-born former England Test batsman Allan Lamb, who in 1992, went to the tabloid press accusing Pakistani speed merchants Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis of ‘diabolically tampering with the ball.’ Little has changed in 100 years!
Perhaps, the people who realised it most were the group of young Pakistani supporters who descended on Boleyn Cinema in Upton Park in London’s Eastend, an Asian working class area, to watch Lagaan on the same evening as the author. Clad in their national colours and with their national flags draped around their shoulders, they waited for the movie to begin. Yes, they were waiting for Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) to begin his heroics against the English.
The desire in them to see the English beaten in cricket and rendered powerless in civil society has never been higher. Two weeks prior to the day, Pakistan had pulled off an astonishing win at Old Trafford in the last session to square the Test series and it had been celebration time for them. But not for long, as ball tampering allegations were raised against captain Waqar by the English media.
The victory had been marred by the humiliation of being called cheats by implication. Even though Pakistan defeated England at Lord’s by one run in a Natwest Triangular series one-day game a week after Old Trafford, they had not had enough to compensate for.
The Old Trafford Test itself was played with the ground being a veritable police fortress owing to the racial riots in the neighbouring area of Oldham. And fresh racial riots involving the Pakistani and white working classes had broken out in Burnley in east Lancashire on the day that preceded the day they made the trip to Boleyn Cinema.
Inside the theatre, when the sun’s first rays fall on the pitch on match day, there is a hush in eager anticipation of events. And then there is pandemonium.
‘Reverse swing, Wasim Bhai,’ they demand as Deva runs in to bowl.
‘Sabhash Saqi, sabhash,’ they roar as Kachra spins a web around the English batsmen. (Who cares if Kachra is shown in the movie as a handicapped leg-spinner and not an off-spinner in the mould of Saqlain Mushtaq?)
‘Kya sixer mara, Inzy,’ they yell as Bhuvan cuts loose at the end to give his team victory.
Nothing detracts them from cheering on Bhavan’s outfit. Not even the bhajan sequence, which situates the impending victory of the peasants in a Hindu context.
At the end of the movie, as the group dispersed talking about their team’s chances against Australia in the final of the Natwest series at Lord’s two days later, I contemplated the reasons behind the absence of vociferous and visible Indian support in the audience. It surely could not have been class because the area was home to working class Indians as well.
Could it be that the Indian immigrants were at a lower level of fervour because their team was not involved in cricketing action this summer in England? Possibly.
But somewhere in my academic mind something told me that the incident illustrated the manner in which the incipient nationalist contestation of colonialism, which is what pre-Independence Indian cricket is all about, has been hijacked in the postcolonial era by Pakistan in the form of its rabid anti-racist discourse.
As I rushed back along with my Indian friend to his home, the most poignant moment of the evening flashed before me almost as a vindication of my theoretical position. ‘Angrezon ke liye ye sirf ek khel hai, lekin yeh hamara zindagi hai,’ (‘For the English, this is just a game. But for us it is our life.’) Aamir tells his team-mates in that magical moment before the match.
The section of the movie-house where the flag-waving group is seated breaks into wild applause. There was a collective sense of anger in it, indignation too. At the word ‘Paki’ being used derogatorily very often by white working class England for everything related to Asian immigration.
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